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Japanese education officials visit local teacher's history classes

Bruce Lesh teaches about sharecropping during his Franklin High School history class on Monday.
Bruce Lesh teaches about sharecropping during his Franklin High School history class on Monday. (KEN KOONS/STAFF PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

REISTERSTOWN - Westminster resident and Franklin High School history teacher Bruce Lesh thought he was being "catfished."

Despite the fact that he had authored the book "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer? Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12," Lesh was very caught off guard when he received an email stating that a four-person delegation from the Japanese Ministry of Education wanted to observe a day of his teaching.

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"I Googled everyone and they were real people, so then I was kind of intrigued," Lesh said.

It all came to fruition on Monday when Tomohito Harada, Toshiro Nakao, Masahiro Nii and Noboru Tanaka spent the day with Lesh at the Reisterstown high school, observing three classes, partaking in a catered lunch and ending the day with a final discussion, during which the group members asked a few questions of their own.

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Lesh said it turned out that Harada learned about him by reading his book, which was published by Stenhouse Publishers in 2011. The idea behind the book is that history should not be taught through a teacher lecturing and students memorizing what he tells them for a test. To Lesh, it should be an interactive experience in which students are presented with multiple outlooks from many sources in order to reach their own answers.

"For a lot of kids, they just want you to tell them the answer, but in the real world you have to put together information and come up with an answer yourself," Lesh said.

Harada, who explained that his delegation was visiting multiple schools in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, said teaching history in Japan has become too "teacher-centered."

"We want to make it more student-centered, like Mr. Bruce said," he said.

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The classes the delegation viewed at Franklin were all Lesh's Honors United States History. The final class of the day was focused on what factors drove the decline of rights for black people in the South during the post-Reconstruction era. Students were asked to consider if the majority of these factors were social, economic, political or related to disenfranchisement, the loss of the right to vote.

Lesh used the recordings of multiple blues songs to teach this lesson and explained to students that this music genre actually started through slaves' work songs. He gave each of the students the lyrics to one of six blues songs and grouped the students by song. The groups all discussed the song lyrics among themselves, and then one student from each group presented in front of the class. The six presenters each discussed what their respective songwriter's problem was and whether it seemed to be caused by a social, economic or political movement.

Though the students explained their interpretations of the song lyrics, Lesh kept them on track historically, explaining concepts like "sun-down laws."

"African Americans were not allowed in that town [after sunset] and if they were, they could be arrested," he said.

Junior Sam Bass, 16, said after that class that she enjoyed Lesh's in-depth, visual methods for teaching history.

"I think it's all about having real-world examples. We learn the same thing every year but we get more in depth with it," she said.

Despite being in an honors class, Bass said history did not always come easy for her, so being able to really connect with a lesson was important.

"I'm all about taking notes, and the pictures help a lot - having that visual and making constant connections to other topics," she said.

Following Monday's last class, Lesh met alone with the four ministry members for some questions and answers. Due to language barriers, Tanaka asked the majority of the questions and translated Lesh's answers to the other men.

One of the questions related to the importance Lesh seemed to place on the background of the authors he used as sources - who, in Monday's case, were the songwriters.

Lesh said knowing an author's background taught students about perspective and to not necessarily take everything at face value.

"They're reflecting their lives through the music, and then [the students] see that music serves as a source," Lesh said.

Lesh said his teaching was based on students developing critical literacy skills and building historical arguments using evidence.

"This approach is centered on a democratic culture. It's a culture that allows people to question evidence and sources," he said.

Lesh said while some states have requirements that history classes cover everything from 1492 to the present, Maryland only requires that these classes cover everything from the Civil War to the present. Lesh said he prefers quality over quantity when it comes to how much material he covers.

"I think we make a mistake by saying 'We have to cover it all.' Kids are much more engaged when you cover it in depth than when you go a mile wide and an inch deep," he said.

The ministry members were also curious as to how Lesh and other history teachers handle teaching sensitive subjects like extreme racism. Lesh said matters like this are usually school- and community-specific.

"There are many communities where it is not OK to talk about lynching. ... This community is very diverse, but it understands its diversity," he said.

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